University: Durham University
Degree: Social science
Family and divorce is very much a people-focused area of law. Family and divorce lawyers deal with diverse legal issues including marriage, civil partnerships and unmarried couples, cohabitation, separation, divorce, financial claims and the now common pre and post-nuptial/civil partnership agreements. Work on matters relating to children also form a big part of a family lawyer’s daily caseload. Family and divorce lawyers are often litigators, but also negotiate out-of-court settlements. Family law cases often grab the media headlines, particularly when they involve people with high wealth or high-profile personalities. While the role of a family lawyer calls for an astute legal mind, strong communication and pastoral skills are also needed to support clients through often difficult times.
After studying a degree in social sciences, Jamie Kennaugh realised that a career in family law was the right path for her as she was looking for a job that was structured, complex and would involve client contact. As soon as she left university, she completed a vacation scheme at Charles Russell Speechlys and afterwards secured a sought-after training contract there. She joined the firm as a trainee in 2007 and in 2018 was promoted to partner: “I’ve been at Charles Russell Speechlys throughout my career,” Jamie says, “and I’ve done nothing but matrimonial law since I qualified. The work is so varied that I haven’t felt like I need to look for something else or change what I’m doing. I love it”.
Fallout and planning for the future
The family law team at Charles Russell Speechlys focuses on private family law, particularly children, divorce and financial matters: “We deal with the fallout from matrimonial and family situations, such as financial settlements on divorce and children arrangements,” Jamie explains. But she also helps clients to plan for the future, including negotiating pre-nuptial and cohabitation agreements. The positive impact Jamie can make on the lives of her clients is the highlight of the job for her: “There are situations where parents who should be seeing their children aren’t seeing their children and helping them to achieve that is the most rewarding aspect and makes it all worthwhile.”
The variety of the work is what first drew Jamie into family law: “I knew I wanted client contact in my job – I wanted to be involved and working with clients every day, I didn’t want to be just working on documents and sitting behind a computer. So family and matrimonial law is brilliant for that – you’re doing written and analytical work, but you’re also spending lots of time with clients so it’s a really good balance. There’s never a boring day!”
Jamie’s caseload can be anywhere between 20 to 30 clients “and you never know when something’s going to take a turn, so there’s a lot of multitasking involved each day”. A typical day might involve “meeting with clients in person, speaking to clients on the phone and advising on their day-to-day issues – as well as advising on the wider strategies of the case at hand”. Solicitors may also be in court for cases that are litigating, so “you’re meeting with barristers to discuss the case, working out how to move forward and talking about settlement options”.
“In order to do your job well you need to be objective – you need to be able to stand back, give good advice and not run yourself down"
The work of a family solicitor also involves written work, including “corresponding with the solicitors on the other side, clients and experts. You also have to draft comprehensive witness statements for contested cases. There is also extensive financial disclosure as well when you’re dealing with the financial arrangements on divorce”. An “incredibly rewarding” aspect of the job is “giving people the chance to be financially independent”, Jamie says.
Family and matrimonial law is a very varied area to work in: “It’s not like corporate law, where you may be working on one or two deals at a time,” explains Jamie. “In family law you’re moving between and juggling different tasks and it is not unusual to work on all of your cases, in one way or another, on any given day.”
Step back, compartmentalise and be objective
As clients are often going through the worst times of their lives when family lawyers get involved, “it is very emotional and it can be quite difficult to not take on all your clients’ problems. In order to do your job well you need to be objective – you need to be able to stand back, give good advice and not run yourself down”. Jamie recommends developing strategies and compartmentalising to ensure that the work doesn’t intrude into your personal life. She also highlights the importance of trying out family law during work experience – and definitely during your training contract – if you are interested in the area, rather than jumping in uninformed: “I’ve seen some people specialise in family law and then realise that it’s not actually for them as they’re worrying about clients 24 hours a day, which isn’t sustainable.” Her top piece of advice to future solicitors is to “get as involved as possible during your training contract as that’s a brilliant place to find out what your strengths and interests are, so that you can make an informed decision when it comes to qualifying”.
Looking to the future, Jamie contemplates the rise of alternative dispute resolution (ADR): “ADR is something that’s going to become more prevalent and future students will have training in it, which is something that I didn’t necessarily have. ADR is fantastic because it gives you various methods of sorting matters out without going to court – and that’s far better for the family.” Technological advancements will also introduce new challenges, but Jamie recognises that “the profession will adapt and focus on where value can be added for a client in terms of expertise”.
Empathy is key
Commenting on the main strengths needed to be a top solicitor practising family law, Jamie says “empathy is one of the main ones, but you also need to be able to judge the situation and react appropriately, as well as put into practice the traits that solicitors generally have as well – good communication, organisation and teamwork skills. That’s why clients are coming to you – they’re not coming to you for counselling”.
Finally, “you need to be committed to the job – it can be very stressful at times because you’re taking on a lot, but you need to do the best for your clients. I have to say that I am one of the few of my peers who went into law and actually still practises and I think the fact that family law is so unique, varied and rewarding plays a large part in that”.